How to Read a Wine Label

Trumping whatever esthetic value that a wine label may have, its main function is to impart information to the consumer. As such, both the bottler (or producer, winery or winemaker), as well as the legal authority where the wine is sold, have an interest in shaping that information.

For their part, the people who put the wine in the bottle want the consumer to buy it. Consequently, wine labels may contain visually attractive or eye-catching graphics or art; descriptions of how the wine tastes, how it was made, or what foods it best accompanies; technical information (pH or acidity level, for example, or wood aging regimen); or marketing terms such as “reserve” or “special selection.”

Neither any U.S. nor State government body regulates that body of information. For example, the word “reserve” has no legal standing and can mean anything from special treatment given to it by the winemaker, to something as thin as the ink with which the word is printed. (Contrariwise, foreign governments may prohibit such language on U.S. wines exported to their countries. The European Union, for example, forbids the word “reserve” on labels of American wines.)

U.S. Government requirements

However, wine labels also contain a substantial amount of legal content that is regulated by the U.S. Government, under the auspices of the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade & Tax Bureau (known as the TTB, an arm of the Treasury Department, known formerly as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms).

The TTB not only oversees label language on wine produced in the U.S., but also those for wines imported into the U.S. and sold here.  For example, the TTB requires that the so-called Government Warning (“(1) According to the Surgeon General …”) be affixed to all bottles of wine sold in the U.S. Consequently, French and Italian wine bottlers, for example, must add strip labels with the Government Warning to bottles of wine that they hope to sell in this country.

Taken as a whole, though, the TTB regulations can provide helpful information to purchasers of wine. However, they do not describe the taste of the wine. TTB regulated statements may appear on the front or back labels of wine bottles.

Mandatory requirements

The TTB requires the following information on all bottles of wine sold in the U.S. Parentheses contain one or two of several possible examples.

  • Brand name: The wine’s identity, which may be a person’s name (Robert Mondavi) or a proprietary name (Big House Red).
  • Wine type: The wine’s style (sparkling wine) or grape variety (Chardonnay, Merlot, etc.). If grape variety, the wine must be made of at least 75% of the grape named. Generic or proprietary names (Long Flat White) imply no specific blend of grapes, but a blend voluntarily may be stated by the producer.
  • Alcohol content: Any wine with more than 14% alcohol by volume must state the alcohol content (because the government taxes these wines at a rate four times higher than wines less than 14%). For wines less than 14%, the label may state either the actual alcohol content or a designation such as “table wine” which implies an alcohol content between 7% and 14%.

Many table wines are labeled simply “Alcohol 12.5% by Volume” because the TTB allows a leeway of 1.5% under or over the actual alcohol content for wines under 14%—for two reasons: evaporation during aging is not easily controllable, and the common measure of alcohol content, the Ebulliometer, is not entirely accurate (distillation is more accurate, but also more time-consuming).

  • Name & address of bottler must appear, preceded by the words “Bottled by.” The address need not contain a street number.

Either the term “Produced and bottled by” or “Made and bottled by” indicate that the bottler also fermented at least 75% of the wine. Terms such as “Cellared by,” “Vinted by,” “Prepared by” or “Blended by” indicate, by law, various treatments.

  • Net contents of the wine, in metric measurement (750 ml).
  • “Contains Sulfites” must be printed on labels of wines containing 10 parts per million of sulfur dioxide—or, another way said, most wines made.
  • The Government Warning must appear on all wine labels.

Optional information, also regulated

  • Vintage date indicates the year in which the grapes that made the wine were harvested. If used, 95% of the wine must come from that year (the 5% leeway allows for “topping off,” especially of red wines as they age).
  • Appellation of origin: California State law stipulates that the appellation “California” mean that 100% of the wine comes from California. Federal and nearly all other State laws require that use of a State name means at least 75% of the wine comes from the State so named.

If a label states an officially designated viticultural area (AVA), the TTB requires that at least 85% of the wine comes from the AVA so named (Napa Valley). If a vineyard is named, at least 95% (Martha’s Vineyard).
“Estate bottled” is regulated to mean that the winery on the label grew 100% of the grapes on land that it owns or controls, and that it crushed, fermented, finished, aged and bottled the wine in a continuous process.

By | 2020-09-28T21:56:01+00:00 January 27th, 2019|

About the Author:

Marczyk Fine Wines has Bill St John and other wine lovers to thank for our blog. Wine and food facts and falsehoods, delicious recipes, Denver liquor history, and "the best wines you never heard of" explained, all in one nifty place. This is the Denver wine store you're looking for. Bill is a Denver native and for 40 years, a teacher and writer on food and food & wine, including The Denver Post; Rocky Mountain News; Chicago Tribune; Wine & Spirits magazine; KCNC-TV Channel 4; and others. He also writes for Marczyk Fine Foods too.